As the gay marriage vote split the Conservatives, it also revealed quite how fractious they have become -and how anti-progressive they still remain. Eurosceptics outnumber europhiles, social conservatives outnumber social liberals, and neo-liberals outnumber One Nation Tories. Yet the battle for the soul of the party is in the hands of one of its most socially progressive leaders in a generation.
Some short time before John Major lost office to the Labour Party and the Conservatives fell into the wilderness, a cabinet source compared the party’s split on Europe to the divide over the Corn Laws in the mid 19th Century; a divide which caused the breaking off of the Peelites and the foundation of the modern Conservative Party under his leadership. David Cameron’s delayed speech on an EU Referendum was supposed to put the Europe question, if not to bed, then to the back of the collective mind of the party, and perhaps did its job, but it showed that the Tories had still not really moved on from 1996.
The vote on the Marriage (Same-Sex Couples) Bill, passed with 400 for to 175 against, showed that on social issues the Conservatives have also not moved from the position which they occupied in 1996. That is not to say that the Tories have not moved on. The Etonian Prime Minister David Cameron has given, if nothing else, a new flavour and branding to the party’s image; one of polite paternalism, staunch belief in a Britishness which considers a better society for all, a lowered tone on anti-statism, and a heightened awareness of the need for social mobility. All of this, of course, is just an image, and one that is slowly being chipped away to reveal the true heart of Conservative belief, which is of a pro-business, pro-wealth, pro-privilege society, but it is at least fair to say that the image is partly reflective of the man.
The party as a whole, however, has not moved, and the vote in the Commons on the day proved it. Over half of Mr. Cameron’s party voted against allowing same sex couples to become legally married. Now, it is not for me to set out my views on what constitutes ‘marriage’ and why one might or might not be entitled to it (many other people have had a good go at that for me anyway), but it is my view that, if homosexual couples want to get married and consecrate their relationship in that way, and it is not harming anyone (and I don’t count the nimbys and the small town grumblers), then they should of course be allowed to do so. As Humza Yousaf, a rather gifted MSP for the Scottish National Party tried to suggest on Question Time a couple of weeks ago, if a Priest or an Imam, or other religious authority believes on religious grounds that they cannot carry out such a ceremony then that is their prerogative -nobody will make them.
With that said it seems to hard to understand why one hundred and seventy-five people could possibly be against the Bill. One MP even described how she had a deluge of letters from constituents saying that, if she voted for this Bill, they would not reelect her. But it is not entirely the small villages and parishes of England that went against this Bill; the type of people who stand for tradition, for time-honoured values, and people who, if not homophobic, aren’t willing to consider same-sex marriage because, as far as they’re concerned, it isn’t much of an issue round where they live. This description isn’t designed to belittle them, it is simply what often goes on. MPs in Leeds, Yorkshire and Redditch also voted against the Bill. Of the 22 Labour MPs that voted against the Bill many were from constituencies in Scotland and Wales, and several from the north of England. This was not a vote reflective of a nation’s beliefs, just parts of it. Of course, the votes of the MPs in no way reflects the beliefs of the constituents, but the areas that said yes, and the ones that conversely said no, bears thinking about.
As I have already mentioned, the Prime Minister is in the bizarre position of being at odds with the majority of his party. He is perhaps the most One Nation Conservative Prime Minister since Ted Heath, though I make no bones about saying that he is far to the right of Ted Heath on most things. Many in his Cabinet surely disagree with him on several policy points, and there has not been a Cabinet so thoroughly departmentalized in a long time; with Gove forging ahead in education, Duncan Smith left to ravage the welfare state and Jeremy Hunt becoming the new face of the NHS cuts.
Cameron has become a figurehead for a beleaguered party. Whilst Tony Blair managed to placate the Unionists and Old Labourites partly because they saw in him a man who could deliver elections and a man who, for all his foibles, really did believe in social equality and common justice, David Cameron, his backbenchers have decided, can offer them nothing they really want. They want to be out of Europe, but they know he wants to stay in, they do not like the idea of gay marriage, but he probably does, they honestly believe in cutting budgets and letting the weakest in society suffer, whereas he- and I’ll go out on a limb here- probably believes that everyone should bear the burden. How that translates into a millionaire’s tax cut and a Bedroom Tax it is uncertain, but then the Tories have always had a strange concept of fairness.
There are many things that could bring the Conservatives crashing down in 2015, not least their economic record which is fast becoming saturated from the number of blots it has received. Cameron needs to unite the Conservative Party, or at least keep them from breaking apart, a task arguably more insurmountable than winning the next election. But it appears that what the Conservatives really need is not 1996, but 1986. They need a Mrs. Thatcher; somebody who speaks to them, and who speaks to the public across all spectra, from the bin man to the banker. No one in the Cabinet seems up to the task. Never mind, then. Such, such were the joys…
Sir Robert Peel -public domain, en.wikipedia